Everyone was walking past, refusing to meet her eyes. She wasn’t asking for somewhere to live. She wasn’t even asking for something to live on. All she was asking for was just enough to buy some breakfast. But everyone just kept walking past and the angrier she got the wider the berth they gave her and the faster they moved past her.
I’ve been here since five this morning, she said. I just want some coffee and something to eat.
I didn’t choose this life, you know.
The Indian writer, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, in The storyteller of Marrakesh, writes: ‘It is certainly safe inside a house… but safer inside a story where everything connects.’ When you are excluded it is as if your story has been rubbed out. You are erased. Your story is erased. The structural and historical story that connects everything that is happening in society with everything that is happening to you is obscured. In place of the truth you are enveloped by an intricate network of ideological lies.
I do not know this young woman’s story. Our stories only intersected everso briefly. What I do know is that her words captured all that is soul-crushing and life-destroying about neoliberalism. We are all taught to believe that life is what you make it, that we can make choices, that we reap either the rewards or the personal pain of our choices, that the market offers each us a dazzling array of choices, that we are free.
She did not choose to be sitting on a corner opposite Melbourne Town Hall asking passers-by for a few coins so that she could buy coffee and a muffin. She did not choose to experience homelessness, insecurity, unemployment, exclusion.
The neoliberal myth rubs salt in her wounds as the material marketplace she is waiting in constantly tells her that she is where she deserves to be in the order of things. ‘Beggars can’t be choosers’ is the deeply offensive doxa that rings in everybody’s ears. This is convincing. It takes on the appearance of common sense even. It seeps deeply into our consciousness, assuring everyone, from the very rich to the very poor, that things are as they should be. And so we give our passive consent to an unjust status quo that relegates and residualises human beings. Except when we are confronted with the concrete realities as opposed to the ideological fictions they are obscured by. Then we begin to think. And question. As Viviane Forrester put it so powerfully in her book, The Economic Horror:
“There is no more subversive activity than thinking, none more feared, more slandered, and this is not due to chance, nor it is innocuous. Thinking is political. And not only political thinking is, far from it. The mere act of thinking is political.”
So who made this choice for her?
In a compelling report by Peter Mares, we read of Finland’s political choice to eliminate rough sleeping through the Housing First approach. Instead of cycling people through short term accommodation services and abandoning them to the whims of the private rental market, Finland has made a rational decision to ensure that people have a place to call home. This is not only more respectful of people’s rights; it ends up being more cost efficient in the long term since having a place to call home is the building block to addressing so many other problems. Without a place to call home it is nigh impossible to get a job, keep a job, go to school, university or TAFE, or take care of your health. This is not pie-in-the-sky idealism; it’s a practical reality, a pragmatic response to a social problem. But that’s the difference. Homelessness is being addressed in this instance as a social problem rather than a personal failing. As long as we continue to be sucked in by the neoliberal myth that posits the people facing exclusion as the problem, rather than the social and economic system that actually excludes and punishes them, we can never hope for the political will required to eliminate homelessness.
It is not poverty that causes homelessness. It’s wealth, especially speculative wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, constraining the choices of the many. The twin engines of the neoliberal agenda are the marketisation of the public sphere and the atomisation of the working class through residualisation (unemployment, underemployment, precarity, exclusion) and dis-organisation (attacks on the union movement and workers’ rights).
By consenting to a neoliberal framework, which privileges the notion of choice, we are actually severely constraining the choices of people who are residualised and relegated. What neoliberalism does is accelerate and accentuate the breadth of choices available to a tiny elite, whilst eroding the choices of the many and completely stripping the choices of some.
As the beautiful Irish proverb reminds us: It is in the shelter of each other that the people live. If any of us is without shelter, it is because the rest of us, through our political choices as a society, have failed them. Thinking critically about the causes of homelessness and inequality is crucial. But acting collectively to build the kind of society where we really are a shelter to each other; this is the key to making a concrete difference. This is not an act of charity. It is an act of justice.
The neoliberal myth is that the market is the guaranteed vehicle for the delivery of choice. The reality, as evidenced in Finland, is that it is the role of government to deliver what the market cannot, namely equitable access to and enjoyment of the essentials of life, even within the context of a market-based economy. The role of government is to achieve the collective dreams of the many, rather than pandering to the demands of the wealthy few. Homelessness is not an indicator of bad personal choices leading to the personal tragedy of poverty. Homelessness is an indicator of bad political choices leading to the manufacture of inequality. Poverty is not a tragedy; it is a political choice.
Should Australia then do as Finland has done? Yes and no. No, because Australia is not Finland. We have some things in common but we also have many distinctive social, economic and political differences. We do not need to mimic the political choices that another society has made. But yes, because we do need to identify our way of ending homelessness and because this is within our reach if we make it a priority. As things stand, in any case, we are mimicking the political choices made by those societies that have irrationally followed the neoliberal playbook. We currently have no plan, no vision, no commitment of new funds for more social housing. We don’t even have a dedicated Minister for Housing and Homelessness!
We need, learning from the people who bear the brunt of inequality and exclusion, to tell a new story where everything does connect; where the right to a place to call home is connected to the right to education, to health, to decent work for those who can work and income security for those who cannot, to all that makes us human, including culture and connection, dignity and respect; not just survival but joy, not just breakfast but a fair crack at happiness.
It’s the edges of a socio-economic formation that teach us most about its structural make-up, its foundations. The woman who is forced to ask for money for breakfast tells us what these edges are like. And teaches us why we must fight for an alternative kind of society that disavows the power of concentrated wealth and puts at its centre the collective needs of the people, including those who have been pushed to the limits of despair. As Dante puts it as he travels through hell: A hard edge bears us on…
Dr John Falzon is a poet and sociologist. He was the national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018.